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Pastor Todd Kingrea works to fill food bank orders on the lot at the Soddy United Methodist Church. Kingrea has written a book about Church Bullying.

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Bullies in the church pews

To buy

“Bullied!” can be found at amazon.com and in local bookstores by request.

Traits of Church Bullies

* They do not recognize themselves as bullies. To the contrary, they see themselves as necessary heroes sent to save the church from itself.

* They have personal and self-serving agendas. They have determined what “their” church should look like. Anyone contrary to their perceived ideal church must be eliminated.

* They seek to form power alliances with weak members in the church. They will pester and convince groups, committees and persons to be their allies in their cause.

* They tend to have intense and emotional personalities. These bullies use the intensity of their personalities to get their way.

* They are famous for saying “people are saying.” They love to gather tidbits of information and shape it to their own agendas.

* They create chaos and wreak havoc. A church bully always has his next mission. They are not content unless they are exerting the full force of their manipulative behavior.

* They often move to other churches after they have done their damage. Whether they are forced out or simply get bored, they will move to other churches with the same bullying mission.

— thomrainer.com

Bullying is a form of intimidation often identified with school rooms, locker rooms and internet chat rooms. But the church? The refuge where we are admonished to love one another as Jesus loves us?

Yes, says the Rev. Todd Kingrea, and it can be just as damaging there as elsewhere. He addresses the issue and how if affects church ministries in his new book, "Bullied! Confronting and Overcoming Six Major Obstacles to Church Effectiveness" (eLectio Publishing, 245 pages, $16.99 paperback). Kingree has been in ministry for 16 years, the last two at Soddy United Methodist Church.

"The book developed from my observations, first as a pastor and even as a lay person before I went into the ministry," says Kingrea (pronounced KING-gree). "I saw certain patterns repeating themselves, certain personalities that tended to dominate a meeting. I have been the victim of bullying in the past and I have colleagues who have gone through it."

Kingrea explains that bullying in churches happens over such a long, slow progression, many congregations don't even realize it has occurred. And for some, it's just the way things have always been done.

The bully might be that wealthy member who can always be counted on for generous donations to building or mission campaigns but refuses to contribute to a project to which he is opposed. Another example: Charter or longtime members trying to force their wishes over any change a pastor wants to make because they've "been there for decades and know what's best for the church."

Even something as commonplace as emailing the pastor becomes an issue when the senders are critiquing sermons, questioning church policy, arguing a pastor's interpretation of Scripture. Eventually they may just wear the pastor down and their demands are met.

Conversely, however, the pastor can be a problem if he or she is seeking more power, trying to control the direction of the church or expressing resentment when ideas are questioned or not approved.

"Our culture has changed so much over the past 50 years," says Kingrea. "When my parents were growing up, the church was the focal point of the community and everybody had a social underpinning of Judeo-Christian values. With the advent of internet, we're seeing more people expressing their likes and dislikes and we're open to that form of bullying these days."

And it's an issue that exists almost anywhere in the U.S.

"Church bullying is growing across the country as churches struggle with declining attendance, finances, commitment and community impact," writes Eddie Hammett on churchexecutive.com. "Often church bullies target the pastor and staff, blaming their leaders for the decline in their church's metrics or status. While certainly leaders do bear some of the responsibility, more often these diminishing numbers and impact is a pulpit, pew and cultural issue."

So how should a pastor, staff member and congregation deal with church bullies?

Using the Apostle Paul's letter to the church in Corinth as a model for an effective church, Kingrea takes a straightforward approach to what keeps today's churches from thriving. In "Bullied!" he lists and describes six obstacles that result from bullying: sin and the influence of our sinful nature, spiritual dementia, lack of biblical discipleship, man-made traditions, idolatry of buildings and land, church debt/money issues.

Spiritual dementia, Kingrea says, occurs when members "forget what God has done for them."

"I would sit in countless committee meetings, and it seemed as if the very core tenets of Christian faith had dropped away. I'd sit and think, 'What are we missing? How did we get so far away from what Jesus told us to do and it become about what color paint for the walls?'"

Kingrea pinpoints sinfulness as the root of all six obstacles. Change can't happen until sinfulness is recognized and addressed, he says.

In the book, he follows the six obstacles with four reasons why they should be addressed by the church:

* A bullied church is not a biblical model. The church was designed to function with all members participating fully and equally.

* Churches remain ineffective in reaching people for Christ until the issue is resolved.

* Until bullies are held accountable, a congregation will continue to struggle and decline.

* Pastors and church leaders will have the ability to turn their church around if bullying is confronted.

"Most bullying is over control and turning a blind eye only emboldens then," he explains.

Kingrea says the Holston Conference — the organization made up of more than 875 Methodist churches stretching from Northwest Georgia to Southeastern Virginia — voted last year to create a task force to study the issue of clergy abuse. While the Methodist conference is being proactive in addressing bullying, most churches don't have a process to deal with it, he says.

So he lists suggestions ranging from prayer to being unafraid to letting the bully leave the congregation in his book.

"There's a fear of addressing the issue because that church member may be a big giver or someone well-known in the community and people don't want the offended member who leaves saying negative comments about the church in the community."

But, he encourages, change can happen when members step up and address a problem lovingly but firmly.

"People will ask, 'Can't we just keep doing what we're doing?' Only to a point, because that kind of toxic attitude affects the congregation."

Contact Susan Pierce at spierce@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6284.

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